Cumulo-Nimble: File Storage in the Cloud

[originally posted at Slaw.ca December 22, 2010]

My quest for better file access started with a nagging suspicion that my shrinking storage containers would be my downfall. I went mobile with a laptop, which was smaller than my desktop and was portable. Then I added a handheld computer, which was still smaller and even more portable: no cords, no bags. On toUSB thumb drives and finally shifting to a 2 GB micro SD card about the size of a raisin. Portability raised the likelihood of my files being lost or stolen if I misplaced the container in which they were stored. I solved the problem by shifting my file access to the cloud, reducing the files I have to carry with me.

Keep in mind that I have a perfectly satisfactory system for storing and managing files on my desktop computer. What I needed was a way to ensure that I could remotely access and update specific files and I didn’t want to have to deal with remote access software. I’m a big fan – and user – of products likeLogMeIn.com and RealVNC. They allow you to log on to a computer from a remote location and control it as if you were sitting in front of it, with mouse and keyboard. But that was overkill in this case. All I needed was access to files, and one way to do that is to synchronize files from my main computer to somewhere else.

Get the Drop on Your Files

One of the best known products for synchronizing is Dropbox. You can read some Slaw mentions of Dropbox herehere, and here. Once you install the Dropbox application on your computer, it creates a folder called My Dropbox and will synchronize any files in that folder to your online account on their servers. You could place all of your files in the folder and create an online backup at Dropbox. I use it much more sparingly, dragging a single file or folder to my Dropbox folder while it’s something I know I might need remotely. When I am finished with that project or research, I remove it from my home Dropbox folder, and it is removed from the Dropbox servers.

What else can you do with it? I dual boot my laptop between Windows and Ubuntu. I have Dropbox installed on both operating systems (it’s also available for Mac) and once I boot up, all files are synchronized. That way I can access relevant files no matter which operating system I created them on. I also synchronize my laptop folder to my desktop PC folder. This eliminates my sneakernet and any need for any removable media for toting files between computers. If you’re away from your computer, you can use another computer to access your Web-based Dropbox account and download files for use.

There’s a nice rundown of some other Dropbox hacks at Lifehacker, including how to use it for remote printing. It’s even integrated with the Rocket Matter practice management application. You can use Dropbox as an online backup tool, like Mozy or Carbonite, but I think its real strength is in providing file access.

Sweeten the Deal

I recently started using Sugarsync after reading a blog post by Jason Beahm, as an alternative to Dropbox. The free version of Sugarsync has more storage space than free Dropbox and the utility allows you to synchronize content where it lives. Instead of dropping it into a particular folder, you can right click on a file or folder and add it to the content that Sugarsync handles, without moving it. If you drop something into a folder managed by Sugarsync, it will be added to the files uploaded to their servers.

Another difference is how Sugarsync handles network proxies. If you work in an organization that uses one, the proxy acts as a gateway to the Internet. Any synchronization software will need to be able to find the proxy in order to connect to the synchronization servers. Both Sugarsync and Dropbox have the option to automatically detect proxies, but only Sugarsync did it successfully on my network.

Mobile Access to Files

I no longer use USB thumb drives or memory cards. There are still times that I have portable data, though, in my Android smartphone. Both Dropbox and Sugarsync have mobile apps (supporting iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry; Sugarsync also supports Windows Mobile and Symbian). When you fire up the app, you can browse your synchronized files. Since Sugarsync can synchronize content from multiple devices and keep it separate, you can navigate to a specific device and then look at its files.

Remote Servers Make Me Uncomfortable

Many lawyers are concerned about how secure those servers are. Dropbox and Sugarsync both offer secure connections to and from their servers (see my Slaw post on secure connections) and the contents on their servers are encrypted too. You could take a belt-and-suspenders approach by uploading your files in an encrypted volume using something like Truecrypt. That way, even if someone had your password or otherwise accessed your account, they’d only find encrypted files.

This may still not make you comfortable but there’s another intriguing alternative in Tonido’s personal cloud. You install their software on your computer and it communicates with the Tonido server. When you need to access your files remotely, you access a site hosted by Tonido, and it connects you to your computer. Unlike the synchronization tools, all of your files remain solely on your computer; Tonido just provides a secure access method. It’s different from the remote access applications too, since it’s not displaying your desktop. It’s just for resource access.

Tonido has a few features that set it apart. First, you can create and manage specific users and control their access to resources. Unlike the synchronization tools, you can access more than files. There is a financial application (Money) and a groupware tool (Workspace), and even a Jukebox to stream your music! You can share files or folders in Dropbox and Sugarsync, but it sends an invitation and may require the invitee to install software. Tonido supports guest users that you create. You can then give them specific application or file access through the Web interface without any additional software to install.

Mobile users can access their Tonido-enabled files through a mobile app (iPhone, Android, or Blackberry). Like the apps from the synchronization tools, you access the folder structure that you have made accessible, and can navigate down through other folders to files that you can then download.

Cut Through the Fog

These synchronization tools can reduce the need to carry your files around. At the same time, you can give yourself the flexibility of having access to files in case you need them, wherever you are. Consider putting some of your files in the cloud to make your law practice more efficient.

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